Sony PlayStation Vue review: Cut the cable TV cord, keep the channels and DVR
Late 2016 update
In March 2016, Sony introduced the PlayStation Vue -- a head on challenge to Sling TV, which had been the sole streaming TV subscription service up to that point. Though more expensive than Sling TV's $20 entry-level price, PlayStation Vue served up more channels and features including a full-function "cloud DVR," the ability to stream to multiple devices on the same account, and profiles for different family members.
Since then, Sony has dropped its pricing, and further beefed up the Vue offering, adding new channels such as HBO, Cinemax, NFL Network, and NFL RedZone, as well as support for Android TV devices. And it will soon come to web browsers, too, according to the company. The Vue's device support is much more limited, however, and there are many restrictions on mobile use, too: the DVR is inactive, for example, and certain channels aren't available. However, as of November 8, Sony has also dropped all Viacom channels, including Comedy Central, Spike and MTV.
At the same time, Sling has been fiddling with its own pricing and channel lineups. In April 2016, the company began offering an alternate multi-stream service, with some Fox channels but no ESPN, and the ABC broadcast channel in some markets for an extra $5 per month. Sling also added Comedy Central to the base package and made other Viacom channels available as $5 add-on packages. And, in June, Sling TV finally came to Apple TV. Still, though PlayStation Vue has the edge on Sling in a few critical categories -- superior interface, DVR capabilities, simultaneous viewing on multiple devices -- Sling remains the least expensive, most flexible offering.
But the landscape continues to evolve: The most recent addition is AT&T's new online TV service, DirecTV Now. Launched in November 2016, it features more than 100 channels at the very competitive introductory price of $35 per month, after which it increases to $60. Significantly, subscribers can add HBO for $5 per month -- a steal compared to the $15 the network charges for its standalone app, HBO Now. Customers that prepay for three months of DirecTV Now get an Apple TV, while those who prepay one month get an Amazon FireTV Stick.
And the evolution will continue. Next year, Hulu plans to launch a live-TV element to its Netflix-like library of on-demand TV shows and original series. And YouTube, Apple and Amazon are said to be working on similar efforts. Bottom line: The benefits and drawbacks of each service vary widely by region and device, and depend on what type of programming you want. But since none of these services have long-term contracts, you can freely jump from one to the other on the fly -- so there's no real penalty for experimenting.
Editors' note: The original review of Sony's PlayStation Vue, first published in March 2016, follows.
If Vue was announced by Apple instead of Sony, and called something like "iVue," people would be dancing madly on the lip of the volcano and declaring the end of cable television.
Apple has gone back and forth for years in an effort, now evidently stalled again, to offer an Internet-delivered TV service to compete against cable. Meanwhile, little old Sony has been serving up PlayStation Vue for the last year, offering just about everything Apple is rumored to be planning. And Vue just keeps getting better.
When the service first debuted, it ran second banana to Sling TV, the pioneering cord-cutter TV service that delivers a base package of 20-odd live TV channels, including ESPN, AMC and CNN, for $20 per month. Vue has always had fewer restrictions and more channels and features than Sling, including an innovative "cloud DVR," but at first it cost too much, was only available in a handful of US cities and only worked with PlayStation consoles.
Thanks to price drops, new channels and additional device support, as well as a nationwide rollout, Vue is now superior to Sling TV in most ways and accessible to a good chunk of the US population. Its new nationwide "Slim" packages start at $30 for 50-odd channels, including next-day video-on-demand of programming from ABC, Fox and NBC, with CBS "coming soon."
And you no longer need a PlayStation to use it. Vue is available on Amazon Fire TV devices, including the $35 Stick, as well as iPads, iPhones and Chromecast. Sony says more devices are coming soon. I for one don't expect Vue to appear on Apple TV, but a Roku or Android app is certainly possible.
Vue isn't for everyone. It still requires a broadband Internet connection, so your local cable company's "triple play" or similar bundle might be a better value. It's still missing a few key channels, including live local channels in most of the country, as well as PBS and some local sports. And it definitely needs more device support stat.
But if Vue makes financial sense in your area, Sony's service can be a great way to cut the cable cord without feeling any pain.
Disclosure: CBS, the owner of CNET, is a compensated content provider to PlayStation Vue and its main satellite and cable TV competitors.
Getting to know Vue
Since Internet TV services are still unfamiliar territory for a lot of people, here's a quick primer on Vue. An even shorter primer? Think of it as Netflix with live TV, complete with commercials (that you can skip).
It streams TV over the Internet. Vue requires a broadband Internet connection, and Sony recommends 10mbps or higher for the best experience, plus 5mbps for every additional stream.
It has most of the same live TV channels and on-demand shows as your cable provider, arranged in similar packages, for a monthly fee starting at $30. Vue is not a la carte TV; you can't choose individual channels. Instead it has three different packages, called Access, Core and Elite, with increasing numbers of channels for more money.
It's available nationwide in the US, but costs more (and offers live local channels) in seven major cities. If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco or Miami, Vue starts at $40. That's because you can watch live versions of the local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations. In other places across the country, shows from those networks are only available on-demand the next day on Vue, and you won't get stuff like local news.
Its DVR lets you "record" your shows to the cloud, watch them anytime, and skip commercials. You can easily set up shows to watch after they air live, and you can fast-forward, pause and rewind, just like regular hardware DVR from the cable company. Just like Netflix, these shows are stored in the cloud, not on your device.
You'll need a PlayStation 3 or 4 console, or an Amazon Fire TV, to use it. Instead of a cable box, Vue feeds your TV through a PlayStation console, or an Amazon Fire TV box or Amazon Fire TV stick. You can also watch on an iPad or iPhone or Chromecast connected to a TV, but you must also have a PlayStation or Fire TV to do so.
You can watch on up to five TVs simultaneously from one account. Unlike Sling TV, which is limited to just one stream, Vue lets you stream to more than one device at the same time. Currently the limit is one PS3 and one PS4 in the same house, with additional simultaneous streams using Fire TV or iOS devices, up to five total streams at once. That means your multi-TV household can all watch something different at once, provided you have a fast enough Internet connection.
Unlike cable, there's no equipment rental, contracts or other "hidden" monthly fees. Vue's monthly fee is a flat rate, and the service makes it easy to cancel and restart, or just try for a week for free to see if you like it. (Yes, there may be state or local sales tax.)
The channels: More than Sling, fewer than cable
The biggest question anyone has about a newfangled Internet TV service revolves around channel access. That's why I've prepared a big chart showing all of the channels on Vue and Sling TV, as well as a few (like PBS, CSPAN, NFL Red Zone and BBC America) that aren't available on either one yet, but can be found on typical cable services.
The simple takeaway is that Vue's basic package has a much better channel selection than Sling TV, but worse than many cable packages. And of course, you can pay more to get more channels.
Unlike Sling, Netflix or Hulu, however, Vue's packages cost different amounts depending on where you live in the US. For people in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami, Vue packages cost $10 per month more for the privilege of watching (and recording) live local channels; namely ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
It's pretty confusing, so let's use two big California cities as examples. The cheapest Vue package costs $40 in L.A., but $30 in San Diego. In L.A. it's called Access, while in San Diego it's called Access Slim (Sony tacks "Slim" onto its package names to indicate that local channels aren't available). And no, you can't buy the Access package in San Diego, or the cheaper Access Slim package in L.A. (a real bummer for people who are satisfied getting local channels via antenna).
In LA, you can watch network shows like "The Voice," "The Bachelor" or "Gotham" live, or DVR them, but in San Diego you have to wait 24 hours to watch them on-demand. CBS shows are coming on-demand to Vue's Slim cities "soon."
Still confused? Hopefully another chart will help:
PlayStation Vue package availability
|Pricing for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami||Pricing for everywhere else in the United States||Local channel availability (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC)||Number of channels|
|Access Slim||Not available||$30/month||On-demand with 24-hour delay||55+|
|Core Slim||Not available||$35/month||On-demand with 24-hour delay||75+|
|Elite Slim||Not available||$45/month||On-demand with 24-hour delay||100+|
|Access||$40/month||Not available||Live, DVR and on-demand||60+|
|Core||$45/month||Not available||Live, DVR and on-demand||75+|
|Elite||$55/month||Not available||Live, DVR and on-demand||100+|
If you're still unsure what you'd pay with Vue, head over to Sony's website and input your zip code. Then come back here and finish reading this review! Trust me, it gets better.
Beyond local channels and regional sports networks, Vue's packages are the same in every city nationwide, and offer an impressive array of cable channels, including the Fox and NBC/Universal properties missing from Sling. The recent addition of Disney-owned channels to Vue, including ABC and ESPN, erased Sling's biggest programming advantage. A few Sling channels are still missing from Vue as well, including A&E, History and Lifetime, but Vue still maintains a huge advantage in channels over its cheaper rival.
Like other Internet TV services, Vue's Achilles heel is sports. It's missing MLB TV, NBA TV, the NFL Network and some regional sports channels (RSNs), for example. The more expensive Core package ($35 or $45) from Vue provides access to more sports, including some, but not all RSNs. In New York, for example, Vue has the YES Network (Yankees baseball, Nets basketball) but lacks MSG and SNY, the regional sports channels for other area professional teams, namely the Knicks, Rangers and Mets. For fans of certain teams, Vue is a nonstarter.
A reader told me Sony's website mistakenly indicated he would get access to a regional sports network that ended up not being part of the Core package, an issue that was also reported on Sony's forums in multiple regions. I notified Sony's rep and was told "there may be some confusion with the way the RSN logos are displayed in the PlayStation Vue informational section of our website and on PlayStation consoles." She added that the logos will be removed soon to reduce confusion. In the meantime the best way to determine which RSNs you'd get is to call customer service (877-883-7669).
You can add Showtime to Vue for $11 per month (or $9 for PlayStation Plus members), but there's no HBO option yet (Sling TV has HBO for $15 per month). A couple of other add-on channels are available too, including EPIX and Machinima, Sony's gaming-centric network.
The experience: Netflix with live TV plus DVR
Watching TV with Vue is mostly the same as watching via a cable or satellite TV, especially if you're used to a full-service cable system that includes a whole-home DVR. But you need good Internet service. If your real speed doesn't at least match Sony's 10Mbps recommendation during prime time hours -- or if it comes with bandwidth caps at home -- don't bother.
So how is it different from cable and rival Sling TV? Here's what I discovered.
After a quick learning curve, Vue's Netflix-like interface rules. The most obvious change to cable TV veterans is Vue's innovative menu system. The home page isn't a program guide or staid, text-based menu, it's a dynamic collection of thumbnail images that directly correspond to actual TV shows -- just like Netflix. Intuitive categories include "You're Watching," Up Next," "You Might Like." The "My Shows" list is stuff you've added to the cloud DVR, followed by "Favorite Channels" and "Live TV."
Yes, there is a grid Guide too, but it's sparse and poorly designed. And in another diss to traditional TV-watching habits, there's no way to move to the next channel directly from what you're currently watching; you have to go back to the interface. Channel flippers need not apply.
Once I got over its newness however, I began to appreciate where Vue's interface excels. I loved the easy keyword search as well as the ability to filter shows not just by genre, category, channel and rating, but even by content length. You can also order the results by popularity, name, air date or when they're no longer available.
Once you choose a show, say "Portlandia," all available episodes appear and are clearly labeled, including any airing now, many of the ones that recently aired (labeled Catch Up), any of the ones available via on-demand (Vue's on-demand library seems as extensive as any cable service...and much easier to find) and any you've "recorded" if you added that show to My Shows.
The new Sling TV interface, which hasn't rolled out yet, offers similar personalization and show-centric categorization, but of course Sling lacks the ability to record shows to a DVR.
The cloud DVR works well for scheduling, less so for skipping. Adding shows to the list of "My Shows" essentially sets up a "season pass" to record every episode. And since you can add up to 500 different shows (and potentially dozens of episodes per show), it's great for inveterate DVR-ers. The one limitation is that unlike your hard-drive based DVR, shows expire after 28 days and there's no way to keep any of them for longer.
In my experience, scheduling worked very well, although I wish that when I chose "NBA Basketball" it didn't also include related shows like "NBA: The Jump." There's also no built-in provision for adding extra time for live sporting events. A Sony representative told me "PlayStation works to ensure that when popular live programming content is recorded to the cloud DVR, it is available in its entirety."
Unfortunately the cloud DVR can't match a local hard drive for skipping through, scanning and rewinding shows. You can fast-forward through commercials, but the responses aren't exact and it's easy to overshoot and miss the first part of the show that resumes after the break. It also takes longer than I'd like to step up through the fast-forward speeds (4x, 8x, 16x, 32x, with 64x available on Fire TV), making it even more tedious, and there's no 30-second skip.
Still, it's way better than actually watching commercials, and of course Sling doesn't let you so much as pause on most channels. With Vue you can pause and rewind any live show you're watching, just like with a cable DVR.
Many shows are also available via Catch Up, which allows you to view the last couple of episodes even if you don't add them to your My Shows list. Like most cable services, Vue won't allow you to fast-forward through commercials with On Demand or Catch-Up content, however.
Video and audio quality are perfectly acceptable on a fast connection. Most viewers will be happy with the image quality of Vue. Like Netflix and other services it adapts to your bandwidth -- faster Internet speeds mean better quality -- and the best quality is slightly softer than the best of what I'm used to on my Verizon Fios connection at home. Changing to a new channel or show, or coming out of fast-forward or rewind, it takes a moment or two to ramp up to the best quality.
Audio on Vue, like Sling TV, is restricted to stereo only, not the 5.1-channel surround sound found on most cable and satellite systems.
I've seen reports on user forums about DVR'd shows stopping mid-playback, but in my experience watching tens of hours worth of recorded programming over a couple weeks of testing, that never happened. Playback and live TV was always stable in my experience.
Hooray for profiles! Just like Netflix, Vue offers profiles for up to five different family members. When you first start watching it asks you to choose one, and afterward all of the DVR'd shows, recommendations, recent channels and everything else are tailored to that user.
I love the fact that my wife and kids basically get their own personalized DVRs, accessible from every TV or device. No longer does my six-year-old daughter have to navigate past my recordings of inappropriate material like "American Horror Story" or the Republican debates to watch "Mutt & Stuff."
It's great on a PlayStation or Fire TV box, too slow on the Stick. I tested Vue with every device currently supported. The PS3 and PS4 consoles performed about the same, with snappy response times and speedy menus on my fast Internet connections at home and in CNET's lab. The biggest issue (aside from the controllers; see below) is boot-up time. The PS4 takes 30 seconds to power on, then you have to select the Vue app, which then takes another 15 seconds to load before you're watching TV.
Using the Fire TV box was actually a better overall experience than using either PlayStation console. You don't have to wait for the box to fire up (get it?) since it's "always on" anyway, and once started, the Vue app takes about half the time (8 seconds) to boot before you're watching TV. Superior to Sony's game controller, the Fire TV remote is one-handed, and its commands (menu, back, play/pause etc) are easier for non-gamers to comprehend. I was also surprised to find that responses to fast-forward and rewind were actually better than on the consoles.
Unlike the PS3 and PS4, the Fire devices (along with iOS devices and the new Chromecast) were actually able to connect to my faster 5GHz Wi-Fi networks. Even better is that the Fire TV box, just like the consoles, can also be connected to wired Ethernet for the most stable connection available -- and one that doesn't hog your precious Wi-Fi bandwidth.
The cheapest Vue hardware is the Fire TV Stick, but it's also the slowest. It takes an agonizing 30 seconds to launch and at least another 20 before the interface becomes fully responsive. Many button presses have a delayed response, and navigating Vue's image-heavy menus is more tedious. The Stick still works fine, but the other devices provide a much smoother Vue experience.
Using a game controller to watch TV kinda sucks. My main complaint about using the game controller is that it's designed to be used in two hands, while a typical clicker can be used with one. Losing that free hand in the living room is inconvenient and feels unnatural when watching TV.
The other big issue is that the controls aren't intuitive, especially for people who aren't used to PlayStation's logic. Even as someone who's owned a PS3 since launch and played hundreds of hours of games on it, I was often confused. I had to refer to the Button Guide in Vue's help menu fairly frequently -- I even printed it out to put behind my test TV:
If you Vue with a console, I definitely recommend a universal remote -- one of the few that can actually control a PlayStation, such as the excellent Harmony Home Control -- instead of the game controller. Sony also sells a dedicated PS3 remote, and a company called PDP makes an official version ($30) for the PS4.
I tried all three of those remotes (and a Harmony Elite) during testing and they worked fine, and were all significantly more convenient than the game controllers. Keep in mind that those hub-based Harmony remotes can control everything but power on a PS4, and provide full control over a PS3.
The Vue app for iPad and iPhone works well too, but there are many limitations. The iOS app is generally a great way to watch TV via Vue, and it behaves basically the same as the TV version of the service, but it's more limited. First off, it's worth noting again that to sign up and use Vue, you can't just use an iOS device; you need at least one PlayStation console or Fire TV device.
Second, certain channels are not available to be watched at all on the iOS app, namely NBC/Universal properties like NBC's broadcast channel, Syfy and Bravo. Shows on these channels are clearly marked "mobile restricted" on iOS. There are also a number of channels you can only watch in-home (on your own Wi-Fi network as opposed to via your 4G or cellular data connection), including CBS, Animal Planet and Discovery. Check Vue's FAQ for the full list of mobile-restricted channels.
Finally, shows recorded to the cloud DVR won't play back at all outside the home. You can schedule recordings, but the Play button will be disabled unless you're on your own Wi-Fi network. On-demand shows will play back outside the home, however.
I love that the iPad and iPhone apps also work with Chromecast, allowing you to watch on a TV connected to a Chromecast or other Google Cast device. I tested it with both the new and old Chromecasts and an Nvidia Shield, and it worked as expected. Unfortunately for owners of Apple TV, it doesn't work with AirPlay or AirPlay Mirroring in my testing.
Vue's TV app support is excellent. It's worth noting that Vue supports more than 60 "TV Everywhere" apps that require authentication from your TV provider. People with an active Vue subscription can use apps like Watch ESPN, FXNow, Watch Disney Jr and Showtime Anytime (the last requires Vue's Showtime add-on) on their iOS or Android devices, or even TV devices like Roku. See the full list of supported apps on Sony's FAQ under "How to Use Key Features."
I've asked Sling TV to provide a similar list, but they have yet to do so by publication time.
Should you switch?
The best way to know whether Vue is for you is to try it for the trial period. The variation in people's viewing habits, channels watched and budget priorities is so vast that it's impossible for me to say "you should switch," or not, for every (or even any) reader.
The main reason anybody ditches cable TV is to save money. So the first thing to consider is whether the monthly cost of the Vue package you want in your area ($30 and up), plus the cost of "just Internet" from your local broadband provider (typically $50), saves you anything compared to a TV-plus-Internet bundle from that provider. Don't forget to include the cost of cable's fees, such as equipment rental (particularly HD and/or whole-home DVRs) or the fact that you might need new hardware to use Vue. After that you can weigh the benefits of each service -- cable's likely superior selection of regional sports channels, for example, compared to Vue's modern interface and family member profiles.
That said, this is the ultimate low-risk purchase: Even if you sign up and end up regretting it, you're only out the cost of one month's bill -- unlike a lot of cable and satellite services, there's no contract or long-term commitment.
Cutting cable is not an easy decision, but the mere existence of an excellent, feature-rich TV alternative like Vue at least makes it relatively painless. And competition is usually a good thing.